When you're angry, your heart races and your body temperature rises. It can feel overwhelming if you don't let off some steam. And for many, exercise is the go-to outlet when it comes to cooling off.
But exercising when you're angry isn't always the safest bet. Learn why — and more about the exercise and anger link — below.
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What's the Relationship Between Exercise and Anger?
A lot of research shows that exercise, especially cardio, can help put you in a better mood. When it comes to anger specifically, there isn't a ton of research. But scientists are starting to dig deeper into exercise and anger.
In some cases, exercise can improve an angry mood, according to a small July 2019 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Researchers showed participants images meant to evoke emotion — anger, fear, happiness — along with neutral pictures before and after 30 minutes of cycling. They measured participants' anger levels using questionnaires as well as brain activity.
The participants felt less angry immediately after their bike ride, Nathaniel Thom, PhD, lead author of the study and associate professor at Wheaton College, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Mood tends be fuzzier than emotions, he says. In the study, he and his team defined emotions as short-term feelings set off by a trigger (like someone cutting you off in traffic), whereas a bad mood is a longer-lasting state of mind. Their results showed exercise improved an angry mood but not the intensity of anger as an emotion.
Exercise can also serve as a control valve. "Regular exercise has been shown to reduce anger and allow people to manage their anger much more effectively, " says Srini Pillay, MD, psychiatrist and author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try.
So, How Does Exercise Help Improve Angry Moods?
Scientists are still unpacking just why exercise seems to smooth over your frayed edges. One theory is that it's a good outlet for frustration and may help close the loop on your body's physiological stress response.
If you have a pretty big stressor, your body dumps glucose into your bloodstream (aka blood sugar), Thom says. Then, when you workout, your body can use this extra glucose for energy.
Exercise also influences serotonin, a brain chemical involved in mood, Dr. Pillay says. "We know that anger is associated with a decrease in serotonin," he says. "Exercise can increase serotonin activity."
What About Preventing Anger?
You don't have to wait until you're mad to reap the benefits of exercise on your mood. Moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise can also help prevent angry moods, according to Thom's study. When participants exercised before viewing a series of emotion-evoking pictures, the images were less likely to put them in an angry state.
"Exercise almost had this prophylactic effect," he says. "This would be like taking Tums before you eat spicy food. If you know you're about to go into a situation that's going to put you in an angry mood, my study suggests that if you exercise ahead of time, there's less of a chance you'll end up in an angry mood."
Scientists aren't yet sure why this happens, Thom adds. They need to continue to explore how exercise changes the brain and the potential underlying neurobiological mechanism at work.
Exercising Safely When You're Angry
While exercise can be a good outlet for your anger, you need be careful, too. Your heightened emotional state can leave you at risk for injury.
Try your best to simmer down — even just a little — before jumping in. "Even though you're doing a good thing by exercising, you don't want the end result to be bad because your judgement is clouded by anger," says Gideon Akande, CPT, Chicago-based fitness and wellness coach.
Another good reason to cool off before breaking a sweat: It could help protect your heart. Exerting yourself too much while angry can increase your chances of experiencing heart complications, according to an October 2016 study in Circulation.
The Best Workouts to Try When You're Mad
After you've calmed down, choose your activity wisely. Your first instinct may be to head to a boxing class to pound out your frustration. But that might not be the best option when you're still upset.
"There's a level of finesse, style and mindfulness that comes with boxing. You have to be relaxed, poised and calm in order to be successful," Akande says. "If you're too tense, it takes away from your mental acuity."
Mixing emotion and exercise, especially activities that involve precise technique like boxing or kickboxing — especially if you aren't proficient in the sport — can open the door for mistakes and potential injuries.
Actually, it's probably best to avoid any activities that involve striking — no mixed-martial arts, no kicking, no punching, no heavy bag work according to Mitch Abrams, PsyD, sports psychologist and author of Anger Management in Sport. Those actions might feel cathartic but they can also ingrain a pattern of violent behavior.
Cardio-focused workouts may be the best route. Rowing, for instance, can encourage a decrease in aggression, according to a June 2016 study in Perceptual and Motor Skills. Running can also be a good outlet, according to Dr. Pillay. "It decreases anxiety, hostility and aggression," he says.
If you feel the need to burn off excess energy, Akande suggests sprinkling in some sprint intervals. "Maybe go for a jog and after every five minutes, add in a quick 15-second burst. Then return to steady state," he says. "This will give you that rush and exhilaration, but it's a controlled environment to work out your frustration."
Regardless if you're exercising at the gym or outside, be mindful of others around you. "Your anger sometimes allows you to be more out of control with your body, hands and footwork," Akande says. "The last thing you want to do is hurt someone else."
No matter what, warm up and start slowly, he adds. If you haven't been exercising regularly or the intensity of your workout is higher than normal, your body may be quite sore the next day. Be sure to hydrate, rest and give your body time to recover.
Remember: Anger isn't good or bad. "Anger is hard-wired into us," Abrams says. "The problem isn't anger but how you adjust the flame to just the right amount." Exercise is a good way to toggle things down a notch — but it's just one tool to have in your anger-management toolbox.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: “Acute Exercise Prevents Angry Mood Induction but Does Not Change Angry Emotions”
- Asian Nursing Research: “Relationships between Exercise Behavior and Anger Control of Hospital Nurses”
- Circulation: “Physical Activity and Anger or Emotional Upset as Triggers of Acute Myocardial Infarction”
- Perceptual and Motor Skills: “Does Exercise Reduce Aggressive Feelings? An Experiment Examining the Influence of Movement Type and Social Task Conditions on Testiness and Anger Reduction”